It was a long night, at times contentious, but smiles were all around as the Town of Brookhaven voted to adopt Resolution 193, a measure that combines the Division of Traffic Safety with the Highway Department and frees up general funds to keep the Holtsville Ecology Center open.
After the proposal passed, blue-shirted supporters of the site stood and applauded.
"My father was the former grounds superintendent," said Kevin Filaski, a Rocky Point resident who works part-time at the Center. "While he was working there I would always go with him. It means a lot to me. Even if I'm not working there. I get to see the joy on kid's faces when they get to see an animal in real life. They actually see what a bear looks like. Or an eagle. They get to play with the goats. It means a lot and I'm glad the board agreed to save it. It's a relief. It really is."
Former Town Supervisor Mark Lesko proposed closing the center in a preliminary 2013 budget last month, citing savings of $900,000 a year by closing the zoo and greenhouse alone.
The idea to consolidate and make fiscal room in the general fund to keep the center open was spearheaded by Councilwoman Connie Kepert and Councilman Tim Mazzei.
At the public hearing Kepert said her two main incentives with the department shuffling was to keep the Ecology Center open and to save positions that are currently on the chopping block. She expressed some frustration about a reported $373,000 in funds made available, but weren't able to save jobs because it needed to be allocated to pay medical benefits for retirees.
"That was something that I certainly object to because this is a proposal that we all worked on, and it was to save [the Ecology Center], and to save additional positions," Kepert said. "We should find this increase in health insurance premiums from a different place in the budget."
For now, the measure has accomplished the former, and the consolidation of Traffic Safety with Highway will not cause layoffs or affect job benefits for employees in those departments, such as seniority or retreat clauses, according to the board.
During the public comment, many residents expressed their gratitude and even offered to pay for the benefit of keeping the site open.
"Tax me," said Michael Solomon, who sat before the board in a blue shirt. "Increase my taxes if that's what it takes for me to be part of a community."
"We go there every weekend," said Natalie Pekoe. "It's a jewel. I think this is a duty for us to pass this common area on to our children."
Allen Gamber, of Farmingville, expressed a similar sentiment to Patch before the vote.
"As a parent, one of our responsibilities is to provide wonderful memories for our children, and the ecology site does exactly that," said Gambler. "I raised both my boys with the ecology site, and we have wonderful memories there."
"We have families who come," Filaski said. "Low-income families who can't afford to go to Disney World; they can come and spend the whole weekend there: swimming in the pool, riding their bikes, taking walks. I'm hoping the ecology center will stand the test of time and I think it will."
Sidebar: Workforce & Taxpayer Stabilization Fund Proposal Fails
Not all of Councilwoman Kepert's initiatives were successful, as the board split down the middle and defeated her Workforce & Taxpayer Stabilization Fund proposal, a measure that would have kept taxes at their current rate and transferred $5 million from the town's 2012 snow budget (unused), to help save jobs on the layoff list.
Councilman Dan Panico was the principal opponent of the measure, stating the intended tax decrease as a relief to average families. Union workers who showed up in full-force shouted from the audience and booed when the measure failed.